It has been a couple of months since the Shelby County Commission finally voted to give 140 vacant lots to Harold Buehler/Buehler Enterprises. This vote at least mercifully put an end to a debate that was both grueling and ugly. Now that the shouting is over, and believe me, there was shouting, I do think that it bears revisiting to at least see what we can be learned.

The issue of granting publicly owned land to Buehler was very complicated, and had passionate advocates on both sides of the debate, each for their own set of reasons. A smattering of the reasons that had hundred lining up on both sides included:

Shelby County owns, and attempts to maintain, thousands of vacant lots that it is eager to be rid of.

Harold Buehler is one of the most prolific builders and owners of affordable housing in Memphis.

However, historically, many of these houses have been incredibly ugly—you could spot them in low-income neighborhoods a mile o

However, a design review process was instituted recently that would vastly improve the designs.

However, neighborhood groups felt they were not adequately consulted and included in the design review process.Harold Buehler currently owns many hundred of houses in Memphis.

He currently owes upward to a million dollars in back taxes. However, none of these tax are at the 3 year level that would trigger tax foreclosures.

All of the resulting properties will remain rental for a minimum of 20 years; many of the tenants will be Section 8 renters.

It is felt by some that the communities in which these units will be located already have many vacant units that need fixing, and that they are already dominated by rental properties.

Buehler Enterprises has been the target of a number of ‘fair housing’ complaints brought, among others, by the Memphis Area Legal Services.

Some think Harold Buehler is a saint.

Some think Harold Buehler is a slumlord.

Some found it incredulous that low-income neighborhoods should be expected to automatically endorse public spending in their communities.

The debate simmered for months and then raged for weeks. On the pro side, busloads of blue t-shirted supporters were trucked in with picket signs, skillfully orchestrated by David Upton. A professionally done video was shown in the Commission chambers featuring interviews with North and South Memphis residents being asked- ‘what would you rather see in this nasty old vacant lot, more rats running around or a brand new house that you could live in?’ Just what were we expecting their answers to be?

The anti side wore red, with Commissioner Henri Brooks often to be found at the microphone. There were accusations of ‘slumlord’, and intimations that Buehler supporters and political allies were being bought by being allowed to live in Buehler homes. Commissioner Brooks, who had Buehler picketers in front of her house, tearfully accused him of threatening her family.

It was ugly—on both sides.

The Community Development Council of Greater Memphis, the trade association of CDC’s, after much consideration, took a public stance against the project. We found ourselves, which we thought to be unfortunate, on the other side of the political fence from several long time allies of communities and doers of many good deeds —Commissioner Steve Mulroy and State Representative Jeannie Richardson.

I think, though, that all of this thrown mud and elbows often missed the real point. I spent  several Sunday afternoons driving around Memphis neighborhoods, from Klondike to Whitehaven. It struck me that it is far too easy to spot the results of various government housing programs in these neighborhoods, and it does not look good or feel right. Federal Tax Credits, a major tool in the arsenal to provide housing in this country for low income people, is capable of doing good, but is also capable of doing harm. Tax Credits projects, due to the scoring system for awarding these funds, are always located in poor communities. Is it just me that thinks it is beyond stupid to only locate poor people in poor neighborhoods? Is it just possible that middle income neighborhoods could benefit, as well, from Tax Credit projects?

What is also striking, if you look carefully at neighborhoods, is that each one is different. Some neighborhoods very likely need and would benefit from new rental properties—even those locked in for 20 years. Other—maybe not. And when you drive through Memphis’ low-income neighborhoods it becomes painfully obvious—we do not have a coherent plan as to how to bring resources to bear in such a way as to really benefit those neighborhoods. One thing I am clear on, for all the talk, last fall’s debate was about benefits for Buehler. There was no research and discussion about where Tax Credits, and their long-term rental results, would be of most benefit or most harm. None. It never came up.

We need a broad housing plan that addresses what is needed in each neighborhood. Some neighborhoods are becoming expensive—they need affordable housing to allow young new residents to enter the community and to allow seniors to stick around when their income declines. Some neighborhoods have 20 percent vacancies—they clearly need a renovation/board-up/demolition program and probably do not need a bunch of new houses. What do you think the effect of new housing is on a neighborhood with many vacancies? I’m guessing still more vacancies in existing structures. Where do we need multifamily units? What is the appropriate mix of multifamily, owner occupied and single-family rental units for a particular neighborhood? What kind of multifamily is needed—is there a market for something better than the C and D grade apartments found throughout North and South Memphis? Various programs pour funds into apartments, particularly in poor communities, but I seldom hear them ask these questions. We need a coherent plan as to how to bring resources to bear in such a way as to really benefit  neighborhoods.

Additionally, I thought fair minded people might agree that when resources are brought to bear on a neighborhood—be they taxes credits, donated vacant lots, highway dollars, or whatever—residents should be consulted. Not just figureheads, not just CDCs, but genuine public discussion about what we do and do not need in our neighborhoods. It’s the least we can do. Public dollars can really be a hammer. Don’t forget, a hammer can build and a hammer can destroy.